CANCUN, Mexico, AP — Hurricane Wilma came to a virtual standstill over Mexico”s Yucatan Peninsula early Saturday, giving Florida a reprieve but prolonging the misery of tens of thousands of tourists riding out the storm in hot and sweaty shelters with little food and water.
Packing winds of 140 mph, Wilma slammed into the Mexican mainland late Friday about seven hours after the eye hit the island of Cozumel, a popular cruise-ship stop about 11 miles off the country”s Caribbean coastline.
At the Xbalamque Hotel, a downtown Cancun shelter for evacuees from beachfront resorts, tourists and local residents listened in horror as windows shattered, the wind howled and the building shook.
"I never in my life wanted to live through something like this," said Guadalupe Santiago, a 27-year-old cook. "There are no words" to describe it, she said.
Jan Hanshast, a tourist from Castle Rock, Colo., stood in the water-and-debris filled hallway.
"My son”s starting to lose it. He”s tired and hungry," he said. As another howling burst of wind buffeted the building, he noted "hearing things like that doesn”t help."
Huge waves crashed over the narrow strip of land that holds Cancun”s resort hotels, washing away tiki huts. Shop windows were shattered, cars were crushed under fallen trees and pay phones jutted from waist-deep floodwaters.
Quintana Roo Gov. Felix Gonzalez Cantu, whose state includes Cancun, called the destruction "tremendous," but with the storm still raging, it was too early for damage estimates. Officials do not even expect to be able to reach Cozumel — whose ferry service is out of commission — until late Saturday at the earliest.
The fearsome Category 4 storm, which killed 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica, was expected to pummel the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula for two days, raising fears of catastrophic damage. It is forecast to sideswipe Cuba before bearing down on Florida.
"It”s going to be a long couple of days here for the Yucatan Peninsula," said Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
At 2 a.m. EDT, Wilma”s top sustained winds were about 135 mph — down slightly from 140 mph hours earlier. The hurricane was about 450 miles southwest of Florida”s southwest coast. It was moving north-northwest at about 3 mph and was expected to reach Florida on Monday.
Juan Luis Flores, an emergency services official in Quintana Roo state, said about 65,000 people had been evacuated. Mexico”s civil defense chief, Carmen Segura, assured people "their families are protected as they should be."
But instead of luxury hotel suites over a turquoise sea, many tourists found themselves sleeping on the floors of hotel ballrooms, schools and gymnasiums reeking of sweat because there was no power or air conditioning. Power was cut to most of the region before the storm as a precaution.
Scott and Jamie Stout of Willisville, Ill., were spending their honeymoon on a Cancun basketball court with a leaky roof.
"After one more day of this, I believe people will start getting cranky," said Scott Stout, 26. "Things could get messy."
The Stouts, at least, had food and coffee. Devon Anderson, 21, of Sacramento, Calif., was sharing 10 rooms at a rundown Cozumel school with 200 other Americans.
"We are all sleeping on the floor," Anderson said. "There”s no food, no water."
Hotels being used as shelters pushed furniture up against windows, but the wind blasted through such improvised barriers. Water poured into rooms and hallways through broken windows. People at some shelters slept under plastic sheeting.
Mexican officials said about 20,000 tourists were at shelters and hotels on the mainland south of Cancun, and an estimated 10,000-12,000 were in Cancun itself. About 50 hotels there were evacuated.
Cancun Red Cross director Ricardo Portugal said the biggest problem so far had been "nervous crises," and 11 pregnant women who had gone into labor and had to be ferried to hospitals.
After reaching the mainland, the storm”s eye passed between Puerto Morelos, a laid-back fishing town 22 miles south of Cancun, and Playa de Carmen, a bustling resort 40 miles south of Cancun. The area between the two is sparsely populated but dotted with luxury resort compounds.
Mexican President Vicente Fox said he planned to travel to the affected region as soon as possible.
"Now is the time to save lives and protect the population, and we are working on that," he said. "Afterward, we will begin the phase of helping citizens and reconstruction."
At the same time, Wilma was pounding the western tip of Cuba, where the government evacuated over 500,000 people. Forecasters said Wilma could bring more than three feet of rain in parts of Cuba.
Waves of up to 21 feet crashed on the extreme westernmost tip of Cuba and heavy rains cut off several small communities. About 7,000 residents were evacuated from the coastal fishing village of La Coloma in Cuba”s southern Pinar del Rio province.
"We thought we”d be spending a lot less time here," Maria Elena Torre said at a shelter set up inside a boarding school. "Now we have no idea how long we”ll be here."
Civil defense official Adolfo Nilo Moreno said the 725 evacuees at the school were likely to remain in place until Tuesday or Wednesday.
Early Wednesday, Wilma briefly became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic with 882 millibars of pressure, breaking the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds.